The nature of lived experiences of using the Internet as documented by people who belong to historically marginalized backgrounds is mixed. On one hand, the Internet has clearly provided them the opportunity to create and share their narratives from their personal points of view and as representatives of their own communities. A very visible online community of various marginalized groups is voicing a counter-hegemonic discourse, step by step, providing the much-needed diversity of voices. Some prominent examples of such online avenues in the context of the Adivasi and Dalit communities:

Adivasi Resurgence (http://www.adivasiresurgence.com) makes available a platform for members of Adivasi communities to vocalise their views on the issues that concern their communities.

Round Table India (http://roundtableindia.co.in) is a website where Bahujan persons write about caste, Ambedkarism and social exclusion, thus enriching the discourse on inequalities in India.

CGNet Swara (http://cgnetswara.org) [Editor's note: It is an award-winning project and a platform to discuss issues related to the Central Gondwana region of India. CGNet Swara operates from the state of Chattisgarh. The Gond are an indigenous group and widespread ethnic minority living in this remote region that faces poverty, high illiteracy, armed insurgency and lack of economic development. CGNet Swara, which was set up in 2010, has since "chalked up a number of victories, large and small, for the Gondi-speaking villagers".3 ]

Adivasi Hunkar (http://adivasihunkar.blogpost.com), Dalit Dastak (http://dalitdastak.com) and Forward Press (www.forwardpress.in)

Experiences of epistemic violence online

Nevertheless, marginalized groups face several challenges that are defeating the democratizing purposes of the Internet. There is a very visible process of ghettoising the marginalized communities into selective online spaces, which is reflective of "othering"4 traditionally done by dominant sections of the society. By sticking stigmatized and dehumanizing labels to marginalized groups online, the discriminatory practices based on caste, class and gender have continued. One such avenue is the collaborative question-and-answer website Quora where its users, intentionally or otherwise, publish unverified, derogatory and villyfing statements and opinions about India's marginalised communities. Sample these questions about Adivasis posted on this popular website by

  • Why do regular Tamils look like Adivasis elsewhere in India?
  • Have you ever been looted by Adivasis while travelling in distant areas?
  • Why do Adivasis live in jungle and not in human society?
  • What clothes do Adivasis wear?

Let us examine how these online posts are harmful to the people they refer to, in this case, Adivasis:

  • Why do regular Tamils look like Adivasis elsewhere in India? This is a factually incorrect and loaded question that equates dark-skinned Tamil-speaking people with dark-skinned Adivasis. It implies that only Adivasis are supposed to be extremely dark-skinned. Thus, it is racist towards both Adivasis and Tamils.
  • Have you ever been looted by Adivasis while travelling in distant areas? [Editor's note: This question, fallacious and loaded, perpetuates the negative stereotype that Adivasis who live in remote, far-flung places are robbers who attack travellers. It tries to indicate that Adivasis are, in a sense, sub-human. Another implication is that Adivasis are criminals. The Phasé Pardhi people of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, for example, were marked as a "criminal tribe" by a colonial British law in the early 1870s. While the law no longer stands in India, the Phasé Pardhis face stigma and social ostracism to this day as a result of such criminal-branding.]
  • Why do Adivasis live in jungle and not in human society? [Editor's note: This question stems from another stereotype that all Adivasis live deep inside the forests, cut off from all "human civilisation", and they necessarily do so out of choice. Their choice indicates that they are uncultured and wild, or as the term goes, "jungli"5. The fact is that very few indigenous populations have remained 5 completely untouched by outside influence, some of which has been very damaging to them67 and to the natural resources they have been tending to for 67 generations8.]
  • What clothes do Adivasi wear? The question by itself may be an innocuous request for information. However, such questions tend to draw answers that further reinforce negative stereotypes about indigenous people.9 The right to self-identification is considered a basic human right. Labeling anyone by their physical appearance or traditional attire robs them of human dignity.

[Editor's note: Quora is not considered a "reliable source" [WP:RS] on English Wikipedia, except in a few, limited and defined contexts10 . However, the discussion about content on Quora is relevant for some reasons. Like Wikipedia, Quora is a free, crowdsourced and collaborative source of information. Like Wikipedia, Quora has a gender gap. Wikipedia has been among the five most visited websites in the world for more than a decade; Quora gets a few hundred million visits every month11 . India is the second-largest user base of Quora in English12.

Despite Quora's content moderation policies, the examples cited above are unlikely to be removed or rectified. In some cases, the community standards and content policies do not recognise the posts listed above as problematic. In some others, the moderators themselves belong to far-removed demographics, as a result of which they may not recognise the issues with such posts, even when the posts are reported. These are well-documented issues with user-generated content (UGC) on the Internet.

Wikipedia articles are arguably the most viewed UGC online, at times causing "citogenesis"13 when incorrect information travels too far for too long. Observing the examples above helps us understand how popular/ dominant discourse about marginalized peoples attains visibility, discoverability and acceptability on popular avenues and thus perpetuates itself online, while minority/ marginalised voices do not have access to such "network effects" to put forth their side of the story.]

Serious attempts to silence the "underclass" on online platforms via harassment, bullying, trolling and abuse, are reflective of oppressive social relations in the society today. The online spaces are not safe, especially for women who are openly threatened and abused on an everyday basis. The members of marginalized communities are either forced into self-exclusion owing to the fear of online threats and abuse or they are adversely incorporated into discourses that misrepresent them.

Examples of words used in stigmatized representations of marginalized groups in India

  • Primitive
  • Barbarians
  • Backward
  • Uncivilized
  • Untouchables
  • Low caste
  • Savages
  • Rent-seekers
  • Impure
  • Broken people
  • Fourth world
  • Backward Hindus
  • Slaves
  • Tribals
  • Harijans

On 24 March, 2017, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the term "Harijan" is clearly a word of casteist insult and is abusive to the Dalit community.14

The terms "primitive" and "tribal" are often equated to the terms "savage" or "uncivilized" in western imperialist literature and are used for demeaning other cultures. Even though, a majority of the countries have officially replaced the terminology of "tribe" to define autochthonous people, India continues to use this derogatory term for identifying the original inhabitants.15 [Editor's note: Unfortunately, the Indian government uses the word "tribal" and its variations for all official purposes. There is a Ministry of Tribal Affairs (https://tribal.nic.in) and several Tribal Research Institutes16 in the country.]

Case study: Representation of Bonda women on Wikipedia

Bonda17 is an Adivasi community living in Odisha. They are known for their distinctive cultural practices. The beautiful images of Bonda women are very popular on the Internet because of their customary practice of keeping their heads shaved and decorating it with colorful beads. However, the Wikipedia article on the Bonda people links these cultural practices to the Bonda women being cursed in an incident from Hindu mythology. The article states, "The Bonda attire is explained in a legend relating to the Ramayana. According to it, some Bonda women chanced upon Sita who was bathing at a pond in the Bonda hills and, seeing her naked, they sniggered. Enraged, Sita cursed them to a life where they would be condemned to remaining naked and having their heads shaven. When the Bonda women pleaded forgiveness, Sita gave them a piece of cloth she tore off her sari. This explains, according to the legend, why Bonda women have shorn heads and wear only a ringa, a length of cloth that covers the waist." There is no mention of such an incident with reference to the Bonda people in the Hindu scriptures. Hence, such statements published on the default encyclopedia of the Internet, which creates what is considered "common knowledge", put immense stigma on the Bonda people and have a dehumanising effect on them. [Editor's note: The incident from the Ramayana is not supported by any citations in the Wikipedia article as of 20 February 2019, 21:43 IST.]

Image: Screenshot of the section entitled "Attire" from the Wikipedia page on Bonda people, as of 20 February 2019, 21:43 IST.

next: How can we identify epistemic violence in online spaces?